“I carried Ulysses with me for luck:” Frank O’Hara and James Joyce, on Bloomsday

James_Joyce_Ulysses_1st_Edition_1922_GBSoon after Frank O’Hara discovered James Joyce’s writing in high school, Joyce quickly became one of O’Hara’s heroes.  In his biography of O’Hara, City Poet, Brad Gooch details O’Hara’s early infatuation with Joyce, which carried through his teenage years, to his time in the Navy during World War II, and throughout the rest of his life: “When he went on board the destroyer U.S.S. Nicholas, he couldn’t fit Dubliners in his duffel bag so wrote asking his father to type out and send the last paragraph from ‘The Dead.'”  Gooch writes:

During his high-school years, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was O’Hara’s favorite work by Joyce.  He identified with Joyce as the Irish-Catholic renegade who had deserted his Jesuit training to become a writer, who had decided not to pursue the religion of Mary Mother of Jesus but rather to pursue the religion of High Art.  O’Hara often felt he was in the position of Joyce’s protagonist in Portrait, Stephen Dedalus, a parochial student who sat through an endless fire-and-brimstone sermon much as O’Hara had sat through so many lectures at St. John’s…. O’Hara’s favorite scene in Portrait was the pivotal one in which, as he paraphrased it in a letter to his parents, ‘Stephen is out on the beach watching a girl wading, and realizes his vocation is to be an artist.”

As O’Hara explained it in a letter home, “in some places Joyce’s character is uncannily like me — remarkably so in the passage where he goes down to the beach and ‘finds himself.'”

In a piece called “Lament and Chastisement” that he wrote during college, O’Hara recalled that during his time in the Navy “I carried Ulysses with me for luck.  I read it in high school because a friend who was preping [sic] for West Point sent it to me because it was so dirty.  Then I read it from the beginning and it was about something else entirely.  In my locker: Ulysses for luck, and oh my god didn’t Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man say everything?  Should I sent it to all my friends so they’d understand me?”

O’Hara remembers that during combat in the Pacific, “I reread Ulysses, needing to throw up my sensibility and Joyce’s art into the face of my surroundings; I found that Joyce was more than a match.”

Joyce remained a touchstone for O’Hara throughout his career.  References and allusions to Joyce occur throughout O’Hara’s writing.  In “Leafing Through Florida,” he writes:

It is sad and unimaginable that I can be
happy outside Fla. and it is just as sad
that you can and I hope you are but how
lovely it was under the low moon crooning
about hurricanes and cane chairs and Ulysses
and sand bags and wet washing and magnolias

And in “Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s”:

Yesterday I felt very tired from being at the FIVE SPOT
and today I felt very tired from going to bed early and reading ULYSSES
but tonight I feel energetic because I’m sort of the bugle,
like waking people up, of your peculiar desire to get married

I can only imagine O’Hara must have been pleased by the coincidence when he came across this sentence near the end of Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are in the back garden at 7 Eccles Street, about to relieve themselves:

What visible luminous sign attracted Bloom’s, who attracted Stephen’s gaze?

In the second storey (rere) of his (Bloom’s) house the light of a paraffin oil lamp with oblique shade projected on a screen of roller blind supplied by Frank O’Hara, window blind, curtain pole and revolving shutter manufacturer, 16 Aungier street.

If only we could all have our names appear in our favorite book.  Happy Bloomsday!

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